Don Quixote is Miguel de Cervantes giant novel that I’m using to kick off my “Year of Giant Novels.” This will be my thoughts on it.
Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc.
There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.
In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long novels.
I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well.
I will, of course, blog about them as I read them.
Don Quixote Ahead of Its Time
Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast.
Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.
They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures.
Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.
What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition).
They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of postmodernism 200 years before modernism happened.
First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes to extremes with this idea that in an early chapter when he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.
Then the narrator goes off on his own story.
He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted.
This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story).
When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.
Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader).
The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.
This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad.
That’s not all.
Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe!
Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.
I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.
Don Quixote Structure
I’ll fully admit that getting this far has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading.
The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.
In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation.
This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.
The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different.
How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us?
This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.
Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought-experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea.
Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.
This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1 because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book.
Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist, Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled.
As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.
Don Quixote Summary Part 2
Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2.
Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character.
Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.
You have to know a bit of real-life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction).
In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.
But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2.
Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists!
He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!).
These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.
These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.
I’m glad I struggled through all of Don Quixote just so I can say I read it. If any of the above sounding fun or interesting, you’ll probably like it.
For the most part, this is probably a giant novel I’d stay away from for everyone else. It’s historically important, but a bit too long and tangential for modern sensibilities.
Check out the other giant novels I read to get a better sense of something you might like better: